Family Trauma Dynamics Reflected in Film
There’s a Disney/Pixar movie called “Turning Red" that was released directly to Disney+. You may have heard of it. There were various concerns from multiple places that it would turn out to be controversial; each group worried about a different aspect of the film. One of concerns was that it points quite directly at the accidental perpetuation of generational trauma built into family dynamics. That was very bold, even in a society that is striving towards being open about mental and emotional health. Another was because the director chose to use her personal childhood experiences as a Chinese-Canadian as context for the plot. That was risky because it bears the risk of coming across as culturally slanderous to someone who has not watched the film and may take issues personally (even if they aren’t a member of that cultural demographic.) The final concern was actually related to a humorous moment in the movie (not at all intrinsic to the plot) which briefly teases at parenting responses to a girl’s menstrual cycle beginning at puberty. The offhand treatment of this developmental topic offended some people who have more conservative sensitivities, and word went around to avoid watching it. Sadly, I suspect that each of these concerns has scared off viewers who may have benefited from understanding the generational trauma being highlighted by the plot of this movie.
The first time I watched it, I wasn’t ready. I expected I would be — I’m a trauma therapist for goodness’ sake! I was safe. I was at a friend’s house and we had Twizzlers and cinnamon tea. But the emotions that came up were too visceral and too terrifying for me to even identify them. I didn’t feel safe. I felt exposed. Raw. Broken and bleeding out. The movie ended and all I wanted was to sit numbly until my pieces coalesced. But my friends were already chattering. Excited. Identifying favourite moments. Asking one another what scene resonated most with them. I found enough voice to be able to acknowledge that it was very good. No, I couldn’t pick out a favourite. Yes, it resonated very deeply but I can’t quite identify why. I’ll need to watch it a second time.
Then I excused myself and drove home. I was mostly numb.
It took me just over a week to watch it again. I knew I needed to. My therapist-brain was so excited to figure out what was going on for me but I was also kind of dreading it. Those visceral indescribably emotions were just so big. I grabbed snacks, a fuzzy blanket, my notebook, and warned my husband that I was going to be doing a lot of crying. He declined watching it with me, allowing me my space. I turned it on with nervous anticipation and gave myself permission to pause it whenever I felt a wave hit me.
It was through watching this movie that I first identified how often I cry from relief. I don’t think I knew that relief was behind so much of my tears until then. I’d always just thought of myself as somewhat lachrymose — a person who is “regularly given to tears.” In my life experience, tears seemed to occur with every emotion. I just … leak. It’s actually become a running joke with my husband. But now I was starting to see how many of those not-sad moments were actually an expression of relief.
So, what scenes resonated with me?
Truthfully, most of what I experienced are really vague and nebulous sensations rather than actual concepts or describable emotions but I’ll try to describe the three biggest impressions. All three were experienced through the eyes/feelings of my inner child, and I’m not sure I can even pick out how old I felt. Just young. Younger than 8, I think.
The first is feeling like my mom’s emotion was something large and maybe monstrous (although not cruel) that would take over her, not at all unlike the giant red panda from the film. In the scene where the gigantic red panda is storming across the city, I felt a deep heartache for my mom because she was trapped in her “panda” and unable to access her real self.
The second big one was a wave of tearful relief when the extended family members chose to selflessly face and engage with their own Big Scary Thing (in the movie, their own pandas) in order to help the mom/giant panda rein in her emotion. The idea of having that much selfless support from family was overwhelming and reassuring to the part of my inner child who is constantly in fear of being unsupported.
The third was a sense of isolation and more heartache at walking my mom’s inner child through the healing process, and the scene was when the girl met her mom’s inner child in the woods. That emotion is a complicated one — it triggers the fear of being unsupported while still choosing to be my own support. When a child has walked that path already and their mom’s inner child is still learning, they become the guide. It’s necessary. It has to happen. The child has to once again become the parent so that healing to come to the parent’s inner child; it’s just awfully sad for my inner child.
But my inner child is not alone. (She learned that from me.)
And she’s brave. (She learned that from our mom.)
In fact, she’s kind of excited that she gets to face her own Big Scary Thing so that she can help others.